Empire

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* Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Harvard University Press, 2001)

Part of a trilogy with follow-ups: 2) Multitude ; 3) Commonwealth


Interview

From an interview of co-author Michael Hardt conducted by Allen White for the Great Transition Initiative:

" * Your most well-known book with Negri was Empire. How does the understanding of the contemporary world structure it presents differ from conventional definitions of globalization?

Three hypotheses constitute the foundation of the book: (1) that no single nation-state is able today to determine global order, (2) that, instead, a mixed constitution is emerging, and (3) that global capital and the world market are determining factors in shaping the global order.

First, we argued that neither the US nor any other nation-state can unilaterally control the global order. In short, we said, imperialism is over. This proposition was tested, in a sense, by the US war on terror following September 11 with the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq in which the US tried unilaterally to “remake the Middle East” and reorient geopolitics by force. But those old-style imperialist operations failed miserably, and we now see that such unilateral ambitions, for the US or any other nation, are now impossible.

Second, the emergent global order instead takes the form of what we call a mixed constitution in the sense Polybius described upon arriving in Rome: at once a monarchy, an aristocracy, and a democracy. In this framework, nation-states still matter, of course, but they are no longer the sole or determining actors. Think of contemporary world order in terms of a three-dimensional chess board, to use an image proposed by political scientist Joseph Nye. On the top, military level, the US is in some sense monarchical. On a middle, economic level is the aristocratic (or, really, oligarchic) play among capitalist corporations as well as the dominant nation-states. Finally, on the bottom level, various NGOs, the media, subordinated nation-states, non-state actors, and various other forces compete. To understand contemporary global order, then, you have to grasp not only the relations on each of the three levels but also the dynamics among the levels.

And, third, the realization of the world market and the emergence of a properly global form of capital play critical roles in shaping the global, neoliberal order. Just as the nation-state was the necessary guarantor of the collective, long-term interests of national capital, Empire is made necessary by the advent of global capital." (http://greattransition.org/publication/empire-and-multitude)


Review

Tim Rayner:

"I read Empire in 2001, in the final year of my doctoral research. I was writing on the relationship between Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault, two of the most important European thinkers of the 20th century (some years later I published a book on this topic, Foucault’s Heidegger). Meanwhile, I was following the progress of the anti-globalization protests that erupted about the world after the Battle in Seattle in November 1999, participating where I could. Empire provided me with a theoretical perspective on these events that shaped my research output between 2002 and 2008 and fed directly into the script for Coalition of the Willing.

Hardt and Negri’s argument in Empire is that neo-liberal economic globalization should not be understood as a kind of imperialism (where a hegemonic power invades other countries to capture their resources), but a new form of empire that tolerates no external limit and seeks to incorporate all life within its order. This empire employs the internet to organize the global multitude into a productive force; yet as it does so, it enables the multitude to form swarm-like pockets of resistance that coalesce across borders to challenge the status quo. Hardt and Negri propose that the multitude will eventually realize its collective power and establish a new political order based in the productivity of the commons.

Empire was derided in its day for its utopian tone and the obscurity of its theoretical references. I still believe the argument is on target. It was simply too far ahead of its time." (http://philosophyforchange.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/five-books-that-shaped-my-thinking/)

Discussion

Alex Callinicos

Excerpted from an in-depth analysis, "Toni Negri in perspective", at http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj92/callinicos.htm

"The scale and complexity of Empire mean that I can only focus here on its main themes. Three in particular stand out. In the first place, Hardt and Negri accept what is sometimes called the hyperglobalisers' view--that economic globalisation has turned the nation-state into a mere instrument of global capital. Thus they write of the multinational corporations:

-...they directly structure and articulate the territories and populations. They tend to make nation-states merely instruments to record the flows of the commodities, money and populations that they set in motion. The transnational corporations directly distribute labour power over various markets, functionally allocate resources, and organise hierarchically the various sectors of world production. The complex apparatus that selects investments and directs financial and monetary manoeuvres determines the new geography of the world market, or really the new biopolitical structuring of the world.61

The decline of the nation-state does not, however, mean the disappearance of political power. Rather, a new form of political sovereignty emerges, what Hardt and Negri call Empire:

-In contrast to imperialism, Empire establishes no territorial centre of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentred and deterritorialised apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding powers. Empire manages hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies, and plural exchanges through modulating networks of command. The distinct national colours of the imperialist map of the world have merged and blended in the imperial global rainbow.62

The language that Hardt and Negri use here--of 'hybridity', 'plurality', 'flexibility', etc--is very much that of postmodernists for whom the terminology is intended to convey the idea that we have moved beyond capitalism, with its stark polarisation of exploiter and exploited. The metaphor of the network is widely used in more or less apologetic accounts of contemporary capitalism, for which it serves to evoke an absence of hierarchy and concentrations of power.63 The twist that Hardt and Negri give is to use this language critically, and to argue that it represents a new phase of capitalist domination that operates not so much despite as through the hybridity and multiculturalism that are often celebrated as features of contemporary liberal societies: 'The end of the dialectic of modernity has not resulted in the end of the dialectic of exploitation. Today nearly all of humanity is to some degree absorbed within or subordinated to the networks of capitalist exploitation'.64

Hardt and Negri borrow Foucault's term 'biopolitics' to refer to forms of domination that operate from within, by shaping individuals into subjects and endowing them with appropriate motives: 'Power is now exercised through machines that directly organise the brains (in communications systems, information networks, etc) and bodies (in welfare systems, monitored activities, etc) toward a state of autonomous alienation from the sense of life and the desire for creativity'.65 From this perspective Channel 4's Big Brother is more dangerous than George Orwell's, because it allows us to believe that engaging in highly stereotyped and manipulated forms of behaviour are genuinely pleasurable activities that we perform of our own free will.

But more ancient concepts and models are needed to grasp the nature of contemporary capitalism. The increasing use of force to override national sovereignty in the name of universal values such as human rights is symptomatic of the emergence of imperial sovereignty--or rather of its re-emergence. As the ancient Greeks and Romans understood, Empire knows no bounds. It is the property of no single state, even the United States. In the Gulf War the US intervened 'not as a function of its own national motives but in the name of global right'. The new three-tier transnational structure of power corresponds to the portrait of the Roman Empire as a combination of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy painted by the Greek historian Polybius. At the apex are the 'monarchical' bodies--the US, the G7 and other international institutions such as NATO, the IMF, and the World Bank; then come an elite of 'aristocratic' actors--transnational corporations and nation-states; finally there are the 'democratic' organs that purport to represent the people--the UN general assembly, NGOs, and so on.66

How, secondly, do Hardt and Negri historically situate this Heath Robinson like structure? They 'insist on asserting that Empire is a step forward in order to do away with any nostalgia for the power structures that preceded it, and refuse any political strategy that involves returning to that old arrangement, such as trying to resurrect the nation-state to protect against global capital.' Though they compare this stance to Marx's insistence on the historically progressive nature of capitalism itself, more is involved here: 'The multitude called Empire into being.' What Hardt and Negri call (again following Foucault) 'the disciplinary society' created by the New Deal, in which capital and the state regulated society as a whole, went into crisis in the late 1960s 'as a result of the confluence and accumulation of proletarian and anti-capitalist attacks against the international capitalist system'.67

This claim about the origins of Empire implies a stronger version of the voluntarist theory of crisis that, as we have seen, Negri espoused in the 1970s: 'The power of the proletariat imposes limits on capital but also dictates the terms and nature of the transformation. The proletariat actually invents the social and productive forms that capital will be forced to adopt in the future.' In the case of Empire, the US working class played a vanguard role: 'Now, in terms of the paradigm shift of international capitalist command, the US proletariat appears as the subjective figure that expressed most fully the desires and needs of international or multinational workers'.68

This general thesis reflects long standing emphases within operaismo: 30 years before the appearance of Empire, Tronti had argued that capital develops an understanding of its own interests thanks to initiatives from labour, and that 'the European workers find before them, as the most advanced model of behaviour for their present needs, the way of winning, or the way of defeating the adversary, adopted by American workers in the 1930s'.69 But the Keynesian welfare capitalism that Tronti sees as a creation of proletarian power in the era of the New Deal is what, according to Hardt and Negri, working class revolt destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s, making way for Empire.

What, thirdly, is the condition of the working class in this new phase of capitalist development? Hardt and Negri reject the idea that it represents an end to exploitation and oppression. The disciplinary society has been replaced by the 'society of control'. Instead of being shaped within specific institutions such as schools and factories, individuals find themselves under society-wide pressures to discipline themselves. At the same time, the new information technologies have made labour 'immaterial'. The working class must therefore be conceived in the very vague terms that Negri had already developed in the 1970s: 'We understand the proletariat as a broad category that includes all those whose labour is directly or indirectly exploited by and subjected to capitalist modes of production and reproduction'.70

Empire thus maintains the theoretical categories of Negri's version of Marxism, even if their content has changed. The social worker, for example, which in the 1970s Negri conceived as a result of what he would now call 'the disciplinary society', of the state regulation characteristic of Keynesian welfare capitalism, has become a product of the new 'informational capitalism': 'Today, in the phase of the worker militancy that corresponds to the post-Fordist, informational regimes of production, there arises the figure of the social worker'.71 But Hardt and Negri prefer on the whole to use the Spinozan concept of the multitude when they seek to analyse the contradictions of Empire.

Here, where capital is genuinely global, it meets (as Rosa Luxemburg predicted) its limit. Under Empire 'the powers of labour are infused by the powers of science, communication, and language,' and 'life is what infuses and dominates all production'. Social activity as such is now the source of the economic surplus: 'Exploitation is the expropriation of co-operation and the nullification of the meanings of linguistic production.' Empire is a parasitic social formation, a form of corruption that lacks any positive reality compared to 'the fundamental productivity of being' that is expressed in the multitude.

Once again, we see Negri reinterpreting Marxist concepts in looser, more metaphorical terms that permit their infusion with Deleuze's metaphysics. Thus Hardt and Negri seek to bring out the negative and parasitic character of Empire as follows: 'When the action of Empire is effective, this is due not to its own force but to the fact that it is driven by the rebound from the resistance of the multitude against imperial power. One might say that in this sense resistance is actually prior to power.' As they acknowledge, this thesis of 'the priority of resistance to power' is derived directly from Deleuze, for which it is a consequence of the 'fundamental productivity' of life. Empire is as much a work of applied poststructuralist philosophy as it is a piece of concrete historical analysis.

Naturally there is much that could be said about as complex and suggestive a book as Empire. I concentrate here on what seem to me its three central weaknesses. The analysis it offers of contemporary capitalism is both generally vague and in certain specific respects badly misleading. Hardt and Negri situate themselves within the Marxist tradition of writing about imperialism, drawing on Luxemburg's argument that capitalism needs a non-capitalist 'outside' in order to purchase the commodities that workers cannot consume. But beyond saying that Empire abolishes this outside, incorporating the entire world under the rule of capital, they say little about the crisis tendencies specific to this phase of capitalist development, unless the philosophical generalities cited above are supposed to constitute an account of these tendencies. Negri would no doubt dismiss the massive debate among Marxist economists provoked by Robert Brenner's interpretation of the history of post-war capitalism as 'objectivism', but Empire offers very little guidance to anyone interested in discovering the extent to which the mechanisms of capitalist crisis still operate today.

Moreover, in one key respect it is positively misleading. Hardt and Negri deny that inter-imperialist conflict is any longer a significant feature of contemporary capitalism: 'What used to be conflict or competition among several imperialist powers has in important respects been replaced by the idea of a single power that overdetermines them all, structures them in a unitary way, and treats them under one common notion of right that is decidedly postcolonial and postimperialist.' In the place of imperialism, with its rival centres of power, we have an impersonal, decentred network of power, Deleuze's espace lisse: 'In this smooth space of Empire, there is no place of power--it is everywhere and nowhere'.

Concealed here in what Ludwig Wittgenstein would call a cloud of metaphysics is a small nugget of truth. Hardt and Negri tend to define Empire as a form of sovereignty.78 The problem of sovereignty is that of the legitimation of the exercise of power in moral and legal terms. Sovereignty is thus an ideological phenomenon, though, of course, like all instances of ideology, it has real effects. There has undoubtedly been a shift in ideological terms--thus the idea of humanitarian intervention asserts that it is permissible to violate the rights of other states not on grounds of national interest but in defence of the human rights and humanitarian needs of their subjects. More broadly, the development of what are called 'forms of global governance' such as the G7, NATO, the EU and the WTO suggests that sovereignty has become hybrid, so that state actions are often legitimised not on the basis of their national constitutional procedures, but rather under the authority of some international institution.

This ideological shift does not, however, determine the actual distribution of geopolitical power. Not simply do the existing international institutions reflect the hierarchical nature of global power, in that they are dominated by the leading Western capitalist powers, but they are shaped by the conflicts that divide these powers, setting in particular the US against Japan and the EU (itself a far from homogenous entity). Interlaced with these primarily economic and political forms of competition is the developing structure of geopolitical conflict that pits the US against both China and Russia. Not to recognise the depth of these antagonisms between rival centres of capitalist power is badly to misunderstand the nature of the contemporary world.

It is also to come dangerously close to offering an apologetic view of this world. This tendency is indeed the second major weakness of Empire. The conception of Empire as a 'smooth space', a decentred network in which power 'is everywhere and nowhere', is not that far removed from the idea favoured by theorists of the Third Way such as Anthony Giddens that 'political globalisation' is accompanying economic globalisation and subordinating the world market to democratic forms of 'global governance'. Hardt and Negri are critical of this idea, but some of their formulations lend themselves to appropriation for very different political purposes. Thus Mark Leonard, a particularly crass Blairite ideologue, published an enthusiastic interview with Negri in which he praised the latter for arguing that globalisation is an opportunity for 'a left wing politics concerned with liberty and the quality of life, rather than for a reductive quest for equality between groups'--which sounds more like Tony Blair than Toni Negri.

Negri can't be held responsible for the spin others put on his words, but he can be criticised for what he himself told Leonard: 'The big shift is the impossibility of war between civilised nations. But it is not something that the industrialists brought about. It comes from the emancipation of working classes who were no longer willing to go to war'.82 War is certainly highly improbable within the Western capitalist bloc, for reasons too complicated to explore here. But the spy plane crisis that pitted China against the US in the South China Sea in April 2001 is a symptom of a military build-up and developing geopolitical tensions in East Asia that could all too plausibly develop into armed confrontation. Two American security analysts wrote recently of the tensions between the US and China over Taiwan, 'Perhaps nowhere else in the globe is the situation so seemingly intractable and the prospect of a major war involving the US so real'.83 This would be a war that pitted, Negri would presumably concede, 'civilised nations' against each other (one trusts that this terminology is intended ironically). Outside the advanced capitalist world, war shows no sign of disappearing--the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone has cost, on one estimate, 2.5 million lives since 1998.

Hardt and Negri no doubt are aware of this kind of appalling suffering. Their point is that such progress as has taken place is a victory for the 'multitude'. But even this thesis has apologetic overtones in a sense directly relevant to Negri's own history. No one can deny that capitalism underwent a major restructuring in the 1970s and 1980s, one of whose main dimensions has been the greater global integration of capital. But is it really correct to see these changes as in some sense a conquest by the 'multitude'? Viewing them thus writes out of history the real defeats that made possible the reorganisation of capitalism--the catastrophes at Fiat in 1979-1980, the Great Miners' Strike in Britain in 1984-1985, and all the other struggles in which capital succeeded in breaking existing forms of working class organisation, weeding out militants, and re-establishing its dominion over areas where it had been under challenge.

Acknowledging this history does not require us to deny that, as Hardt and Negri put it, 'globalisation, in so far as it operates a real deterritorialisation of the previous structures of exploitation and control, is really a condition of the liberation of the multitude'.85 In a sense this is simply Marxist ABC--capitalism in its current form constitutes the context in which working class struggle develops. But this doesn't mean we have to forget that the processes through which capitalism reformed itself involved serious defeats for the working class. The historical elision of these defeats may be convenient for Negri, because it allows him to evade confronting how far his own theory and politics were found wanting in the decisive test of the late 1970s, but a real Marxism can't tolerate this kind of selective vision.

The most important reason for studying the history of past struggles is that it can help to clarify what strategy we should pursue in the present. But the third main weakness of Empire is that it offers its readers no strategic guidance. The book concludes with three demands for 'a political programme for the global multitude'--'global citizenship', 'a social wage and guaranteed income for all', and 'the right to reappropriation'.86 One can discuss the merits of these demands--the first and the third are, as formulated, very vague, while the second is commonplace in contemporary left-liberal politics. Much more serious, however, is the absence of any discussion of how to develop a movement that could implement this programme.

The strategic vacuum in Empire is no mere failure of detail, but reflects some of Hardt and Negri's deepest assumptions. In one slightly bizarre passage they argue that 'the most radical and powerful struggles of the final years of the 20th century'--Tiananmen Square, the first Intifada, the Los Angeles rising, Chiapas, the strikes in France in 1995 and in South Korea in 1996-1997--did not share the 'recognition of a common enemy' or a 'common language of struggles'.87 But, whatever may have been true of the other struggles, both the Zapatista rebellion and the French movement of November-December 1995 possessed the elements of a common political language, in both cases identifying the enemy as neo-liberalism. They therefore helped to forge the anti-capitalist consciousness that became visible at Seattle." (http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj92/callinicos.htm)


The other volumes of the trilogy

From an interview of co-author Michael Hardt conducted by Allen White for the Great Transition Initiative:

" * Your next book with Negri was Multitude. How did this book build on the ideas presented in Empire?

Although we were relatively satisfied with the broad overview of the globe and the forces of domination that Empire articulates, we felt that we had not sufficiently developed the possibilities of democracy, liberation, and revolution in this new context. Just as we must recognize the multiple axes of oppression today, we must also theorize revolutionary subjectivity not as a single identity but as a multiplicity. In past liberation and revolutionary movements, for instance, the people, the class, and the party have each been understood primarily as unified subjects, defined by a single identity. Multitude, in contrast, is a concept meant to understand political subjectivity as internally differentiated. How can a diverse coalition act coherently and effectively in common? That’s one of the questions we posed. In many respects, with the concept of multitude, we were exploring the same questions that black feminists engaged through the concept of intersectionality, which similarly strives to understand multiple axes of domination and the political need for coalition.


  • In Commonwealth, your next collaboration, you expand the conventional concept of the commons to include languages and social practices. What is the significance of this social commons for understanding—and transforming—the contemporary order?

The common is often recognized in terms of the earth and its ecosystems, which we all, in some sense, share. That is certainly an important project of contemporary political thought and activism, but Toni and I are also focused on a second form of the common, which is produced socially. A wide range of products of human creativity, from cultural products to scientific knowledges, and from affective relations to urban space, are (or can be) shared as common.

We approach the common, conceptually, in contrast to private property. Whereas property implies limited access and a monopoly over decision-making, the common is openly shared and managed democratically. That definition provides a good point of departure, but it really just opens toward a series of questions. How, for instance, can we manage democratically the various forms of social wealth?

In Commonwealth, Toni and I pursue such questions largely in theoretical terms, but we also explore them through various examples of contemporary activism. The struggles against the privatization of water and gas resources in Bolivia in the years leading up to Evo Morales’s 2005 election, for instance, were an inspiring instance of struggles for the common. Water and gas should not be private property, activists argued, but shared by all.

Another challenging example is provided by the various encampments and occupations in 2011 from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park to the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid and, in 2013, Gezi Park in Turkey. Activists in these movements argued against the various forms of neoliberal privatization, but they also sought to transform a portion of the city and, temporarily, made it common, that is, open to all and subject to collective, democratic decision-making—often by establishing general assemblies or similar decision-making structures. Such experiments with the common were a large part of what made those encampments feel magical to those who participated.


  • Your most recent works—Declaration and Assembly— spotlight social movements and the potential for transformative action. What would you say is your central insight about social movements today?

Along with many others, we were inspired by the movements that emerged beginning in 2011 in Egypt, Tunisia, Spain, Greece, the US, and later Brazil, Turkey, and elsewhere—so-called leaderless movements. We admired especially their profound democratic spirit and how they experimented with and demanded new notions of democracy. Why, though, we asked—and many activists asked this, too—have these movements that express the dreams and desires of so many not been able to bring about a lasting transformation and a more just society? Many sympathetic observers and some activists themselves came to the conclusion that in order for the movements to become effective, they would have to develop leadership structures and return to traditional centralized models of organization. Toni and I have thought instead that “leaderlessness versus leadership” was not the right way to understand the issue—that this was a false binary." (http://greattransition.org/publication/empire-and-multitude)